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“5-star” exemption program pioneered in Mesa County opens to other Colorado counties under red-level restrictions

Data from Mesa County’s pilot will determine if variances can be extended elsewhere. It will take a decline in hospitalizations and positivity rates.

Suzanne and Hunter Fitts pay for their beers at Grimm Brothers Brewhouse in Loveland on Wednesday, November 25, 2020. The brewery and dozens of other Loveland businesses remained open for indoor service despite Larimer County's Level Red restrictions. (Valerie Mosley/Special to the Colorado Sun)
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State officials have agreed to consider new county-by-county variances to red-level shutdown restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, but they warned rising case loads mean they will cast a skeptical eye on anyone hoping to replicate Mesa County’s “5-star” exemption program.

The Mesa County program, approved by the state and running since the summer, allows businesses like restaurants and bars that have earned the local health department’s trust to avoid some new restrictions each time case growth pushes the county to more restrictions on the state’s color-coded dial. Since Mesa County was pushed into the red, for example, approved businesses can stay open for in-person services, while the move to the state’s “red” level in other counties means a complete ban on in-person dining. 

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Last week, a group of Larimer County businesses rebelled and said they wouldn’t comply with the new red level since it would kill their commerce, and Larimer County’s state lawmakers asked Gov. Jared Polis if they could get the Mesa County variance. Douglas County’s commissioners wrote a similar letter to Polis. On Monday, Eagle County elected officials and town leaders from Vail, Avon and more started an online petition asking for similar treatment

The state health task force agreed to take a look.

“The state will first be reviewing several weeks of data from the Mesa pilot to determine if such a program is compatible with the red level and make a final determination whether red counties are eligible following review of stakeholder input and analysis of how such a program would work within the dial framework,” the state health department said.

One Larimer County business, the Grimm Brothers brewery, said it was glad the state was willing to consider broadening beyond Mesa County.

“That’s fantastic,” said Morgen Harrington, chief financial officer and self-described lab rat for the brewery. “They also had how many months to come up with a better system? It’s a little frustrating this was not put in place beforehand, knowing this season would hit. It was not a secret to anybody. I’m hopeful we can work together.”

Grimm Brothers was still open for in-person dining Monday, and had not been told otherwise by county officials, Harrington said. The brewery has two large garage doors open to the elements that they claim make it open-air seating, and is operating at lower capacity than the previous “orange” level would have allowed, she said. 

Variances draw more public health skepticism as more of the United States has moved into “community transmission” levels for the virus, meaning testing and contact tracing are overwhelmed by numbers and health officials can’t track where outbreaks start.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

At the same time, public confidence in safety measures took a hit when Polis and his partner, who appear to have followed protocols, tested positive over the Thanksgiving holiday and are in isolation. Critics of restrictions also pointed to the controversy stirred by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s decision to defy his own advice and travel out of state to see family.

The state asked for community input on the idea of wider variances and also laid out strict criteria it will follow if it does approve exemptions for more counties:

  • Each business would need a written plan to meet or exceed state and local virus guidelines
  • The business must have a compliance and enforcement plan, including 100% mask use by staff and consumers 
  • Daily employee symptom screenings
  • Recording the name and contact of all customers to be used if contact tracing is necessary  
  • No business can qualify if it’s already been cited for noncompliance 
  • Each county must have a local committee to run the program, and apply to the state to show they can carry it out 
  • Businesses must complete a state CDPHE webinar on prevention 
  • Site inspections for applying businesses 

The state is reviewing Mesa County’s variance for successes or failures. A release said the state would decide by Dec. 4 whether “this program is compatible with red level.”

The state also described for the first time how Mesa or other counties can flunk out of the exemptions — if local hospitals hit 90% capacity or if the county stays at the red level for caseloads and test positivity for two weeks.


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